The only way to learn to fly is to fly: Regina Dugan at TED2012

Posted by: Ben Lillie

Photos: James Duncan Davidson

“Be nice to nerds…” As the opening slide from a TEDTalk, not too surprising. As the opening line from Regina Dugan, the director of DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), kind of ominous. But the projects she demonstrated are extraordinary, and how they get there, even more so.

If you want to understand how, ask yourself this question, “What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?” It’s an uncomfortable question, because it forces you to realize that the fear of failure holds you back. The path to new and innovative things always contains failure, but we’re constantly afraid of it — we have to get over that fear. Dugan quotes Clemenceau, “Life gets interesting if you fail, because it means we’ve surpassed ourselves.”

The history of aviation. Lord Kelvin, in 1895, declared heavier than air flight impossible. The Wright brothers, of course, proved him wrong. But they failed many, many, many times before they flew. There were many more declarations of impossibility. Ferdinand Foch, possessing the most  subtle mind in the French military, said: “Airplanes are interesting toys, but of no military value.”

People didn’t think trans-sonic flight  was possible. In 1947, Chuck Yaeger climbed into the cockpit with a broken rib and, as Dugan says, “Flew towards an unknown possibility.”

And after 11 complete mission failures, we got the first images from space.

Since we took to the sky, we’ve wanted to fly faster and farther. Today the question isn’t about flying or flying supersonically, but hypersonically. That’s Mach 20, or the ability to reach anywhere in the world in 60 minutes. It’s taking, again, multiple failures. But we need to fly again, Dugan says, “Because there’s no way to learn to fly at Mach 20 unless you fly.”

It’s not just bigger and faster. Imagine an aircraft the size of a hummingbird. They’re not hypersonic, but they are maneuverable. The only bird that can fly backwards, and do other extraordinary things. And she has an aircraft that can fly exactly like one. This $4 million aircraft, developed with AeroVironment, is equipped with a video camera, and weighs less than a AA battery. It does not eat nectar. It flew for 20 seconds in 2008; a year later, two minutes, then 6, and eventually 11. “Many prototypes crashed. Many. But there’s no way to learn to fly like a hummingbird unless you fly.”

From the stage, the hummingbird takes off, hovering gorgeously in the air next to Dugan, piloted by Matt, the world’s first hummingbird pilot.

And that’s far from the limits of what DARPA is attempting. Dugan showed other examples.

- Using our knowledge of Gecko anatomy to make spiderman a reality.

- Metals light enough to sit atop a dandelion.

- Harnessing the properties of lightning as the the next GPS.

- A prosthetic arm, controlled by thought, the first robot controlled with thought alone. It was used by a paralyzed man, and was the first time he held girlfriend’s hand in years.

- A green goo from tobacco plants that could make millions of doses of vaccines in weeks instead of months. It “might be the first healthy use of tobacco ever.”

- Gamers who are solving problems that experts couldn’t (like

Failure is everywhere in innovation. In 1969 the first data transmittion went through the nascent internet: The first two letters of “login.” After the ‘l’ and the ‘o’, a buffer overflow crashed the system.

Dugan believes that the nerds at DARPA are heroes. They challenge assumptions and push far past imagined boundaries. And: “We all have nerd power, we just forget.” We’re born with the feeling that we can create and explore. It’s hard to hold on to this feeling. We doubt and fear. We think that someone else will be better than us, more capable. “But there isn’t anyone else, just you. If we’re lucky, someone steps in, takes a hand and says let me help you believe”

For Dugan, that came in the form of an e-mail from Jason Harley, who, on a dark day for her, wrote an e-mail:

“There is only enough time to iron your cape, and back to the skies for you.”

Comments (18)

  • ex mot commented on Feb 7 2014

    for all the hogwash about her being from DoD and changing Motorola around.. she and her group is nothing but POS’s.
    While in the last 2 years cell-phone companies have moved to bendable displays, Ultra HQ screens and self healing phone (think LG and Samsung) all Regina and her absolutely useless group of sycophant imbeciles did was think about creating tattoos and pills and ended up creating an animated mouse.

    She, Dennis Woodside and Google are all laughing to the bank while the working army of Motorolans who actually made this company great are struggling to keep their jobs.


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  • Pepucho Lengualarga commented on Jun 13 2012

    Fabulous, best handless ear grabbing I’ve gotten in years!!! Unlimited excitement!

  • Mister Wahrheit commented on May 30 2012

    WOOW !!! not even 24 hours after my comment THE ORIGINAL TED TALK VIDEO IS BACK ONLINE !!!!!!!!
    hope you could see the UFOS !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Mister Wahrheit commented on May 30 2012


    GOD !! whz is everybody so blind about this !!!!????

    the ufo was to be seen exactly in the video where this GOVERMENT AGENCY shows us when they match 20 airplane splits in 2 while reaching the Extratosphere…


  • commented on May 28 2012

    I think Regina is actually trying to ignite a passion in as many people to solve real problems, problems that DARPA is not willing to tackle. A great presentation on what is achievable if you refuse to fear. Regina has covered technological advances, there are also a lot of great people like Mandela, Gandhi, Lincoln and others who with very little resources have done the impossible.

  • lisa jensen commented on May 28 2012

    In answer to her question: What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?
    Restore the earth’s ecosystems, and manipulate them toward human food production.
    Not sure that’s a problem DARPA is likely to work on. More up their alley would be clean energy, probably fusion or extracting energy from the vacuum or something similar. That would allow us to maintain our current standard of living, assuming we could redesign our economic system to prosper without growth, and value the environment and long-term enlightened self-interest.
    I’d also like to see robots adaptive enough to harvest food from a functioning ecosystem. Or contraceptives cheap enough to solve the planet’s population problem. A free DARPA-designed on-line education portal might help us train a new generation of scientists and engineers. Maybe once we become sustainable and civilised, we could think about exploring space.

  • food_for_thought food_for_thought commented on May 5 2012

    Personally i think humankind is too involved in petty and trivial and day-to-day nonsense to understand the concept Regina Dugan is preaching. The 100 year old technologically advanced mankind is still in its infancy and does not understand the devastating effects nature or outer space can have on civilization compared to the day-to-day trivia. What this planet requires is 90% of the population (leaving aside the 10% to do the management work) working on things such as bio-tech, bio-med & space research, so that the new generations can make civilization & mankind exist for the next few thousand years. At some point society has lost this concept during the last 100 years of evolution.

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  • commented on Mar 15 2012

    Come on, most nerds go nowhere in life. Even if they did get out of the engineering room and become the boss of someone who picked on them in school — what do you think they would do? Fire someone who knows how to do her job well?

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  • commented on Feb 29 2012

    Reblogged this on Things I grab, motley collection and commented:
    sure.. I’ll wait to you to see how you manage before I try myself.